Chazkeinu: The Stigma Stops Here

mental illnessMiriam,* a 29-year-old stay-at-home-mom who lives in upstate New York, not only has bipolar disorder, she is in recovery from an eating disorder. Elana,* a 37-year-old mother of two who lives and teaches in the Midwest, suffers from both bipolar disorder and epileptic seizures. Rachel,* a 34-year-old who lives in the Northeast, has bipolar disorder that is triggered postpartum. What these women have in common – besides being challenged daily by their bipolar disorder – is Chazkeinu.

Chazkeinu (which, in Hebrew, means “our strength”) is a new organization that gives chizuk(strength) to all Jewish women, throughout the U.S., who suffer from a mental illness of any sort or have a family member who does. The empathetic support and positive connections the organization provides is a vital component in helping them feel safe, understood, and uplifted in their struggles. It offers these things through a variety of programs, projects, and networks that cater to the mental health needs of each individual. In Chazkeinu’s partner program, for example, two women reach out to each other on a weekly basis just to “check in.” The organization hopes to eventually grow to have a monthly email/newsletter and retreat for members to meet one another in person.

Miriam, Elana, and Rachel are just three of a dozen or more women who call in to Chazkeinu’s conference call, each Monday evening at 9 p.m. EST, to receive a type ofchizuk they can’t find anywhere else. A typical call consists of a speaker sharing her personal story for about 20 minutes, after which other callers respond to what the speaker said that resonated with them. On the last Monday of each month, a mental health professional joins the call to share general guidance and encouragement with the callers.

Although the organization is young, it has already seen a good response to the calls. In fact, it recently added a conference call meeting, on Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. EST, starting June 15th, to accommodate those who are available during the day as well as those who are in international time zone. (In Israel it will begin at 8 p.m.)

Miriam, one of Chazkeinu’s cofounders, told WWW, “For the most part, I am able to manage well with medication and talk therapy. I have to be more careful about certain things – like healthy eating and sleeping habits – than those who don’t struggle with the same issues. Taking good care of myself helps me maintain my recovery. Chazkeinu is a way for me to be part of the solution, and it helps me focus on the positives: helping others, reducing stigma, and moving forward with a meaningful life.”

Elana, another Chazkeinu cofounder, shared, “This organization is very important, because it allows women to feel that they are not alone in their experiences. It is so reassuring to listen to someone else who has gone through or is currently going through a similar experience. The women in our organization can relate to each other and can communicate off-line as well as between calls and give each other needed chizuk. Baruch Hashem, my illness has been pretty well managed with a lot of medication,” continues Elana, who has had three grand mal seizures in the last 11 months. “Due to the danger of having a seizure while driving, I haven’t been allowed to drive since last June, the date of my first of these seizures. It has been extremely difficult to manage all the shopping, carpools, and errands while being unable to drive. My husband, in-laws, and friends have been incredibly helpful, but I do miss the freedom tremendously. G-d willing, my seizures will calm down, and I will be able to drive again in a few months.

“There are always down days,” continues Elana. “At times, I just want to get into bed and pull the covers over my head. Sometimes, I do just that. Sometimes, there is a lot of crying. When I went off my medication to get pregnant (I was taking meds not safe for pregnancy) I crashed into a severe episode of psychosis and agitated depression. There was not much Icould do. I was attempting to go to work each day, but I would just sit in front of my class and pick at my face the whole time. I could barely get dressed. I went a few weeks like this but went back on the medication because I hadn’t become pregnant (which turned out to be abracha!). Slowly, the medications began to take effect, and I started to feel like myself, again. My husband and in-laws were extraordinary during this trying time, even though it was so difficult for everyone. My ten-year-old son was also recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so we are dealing with that as well.”

Rachel first discovered her illness after giving birth to her first child. She experienced a severe manic episode, where she didn’t sleep for 10 days. “I was very uninhibited and also had very high spiritual thoughts and was able to be extremely and abnormally perceptive of others around me,” recalls Rachel. “Since then, I have been treated by a psychiatrist and have taken extremely heavy doses of preventive medication. The medication, at some points, makes me extremely tired and affects my social anxiety and mood. Luckily, most times – when I am not pregnant or just given birth – my medication is decreased, making it easier to function.

“Chazkeinu is incredibly important, because it’s so comforting to to be able to be yourself, every week for one hour, to hear someone’s story, and to share what resonated with you in a nonjudgmental atmosphere,” continues Rachel. “I always come out feeling more positive and almost proud to have this illness, because I can be part of a group of such special and inspiring women. I just hope that more people join the line and share. People should know that it’s a safe place. It’s been extremely therapeutic and invigorating. I am impressed with the sensitivity of the cofounders. They have designed the phone line so it really is a place where you can be yourself and feel understood, accepted, and stigma free.”

Elana concludes, “Chazkeinu is my dream come true. I always wanted to create meaning from my suffering by helping others, so they don’t need to go through what I did. Due to the stigma of mental illness, I was treated very poorly by my own immediate family. It is my hope that the more people begin to discuss mental illness openly, so that such poor treatment can happen less often and people can get the help they need.”

Rachel corroborates, “I feel like Chazkeinu has helped me so much! In an illness that makes you feel so isolated and lost in your own thoughts and feelings and struggles, knowing that you’re not alone and that people understand how you feel – and can remind you that it’s not something to feel guilty about or ashamed of – is a wonderful feeling. After all, it’s just a challenge that Hashem gives you, like any other challenge or illness.”

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